Giant in the Shadows: The Life of Robert T. Lincoln

by Jason Emerson. Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale and Edwardsville, 2012, 638pp., $39.95.

This is Jason Emerson’s fourth book about Abraham Lincoln and his family. Jason was also instrumental in uncovering the lost “mad” letters of Mary Todd Lincoln. A former National Park Service ranger, he has been researching and writing about the Lincoln’s for the past twenty years. This is, according to the publisher’s press release, the first biography of Robert Todd Lincoln in more than forty years.

Most of us have scanty knowledge of Lincoln’s oldest son and the only child to survive into adulthood. Most of us know that Robert attended Harvard, briefly served on General Gran’t staff at City Point, had limited contact with his father after 1860, had his mother committed to a sanitarium, served as Secretary of War and Minister to England, and was president of the Pullman Company.

This work, ten years in the making, serves to fill in the blank spaces in Robert’s distinguished and, occasionally, controversial career. It is rather a long work, 421 pages in length with 160 pages of notes and bibliography. It is not the type of book that a reader could “knock off” in a couple of days.

Besides a desire to “shed some light” on the career of someone who was “overshadowed” by his venerated father, Jason has another agenda, reflected in the title. He ascribes greatness to the younger Lincoln, a man of considerable talent who was keen on “making it on his own”, safeguarding his father’s legacy while, at the same time, guarding his privacy and doing nothing to capitalize on his distinguished ancestry. Robert Lincoln was an exemplary individual in many respects and accomplished a great deal in his 82 years; however, whether he rises to the level of greatness is debatable.

Given the extensive research involved in the preparation of this definitive biography, it comes as no surprise that it contains new bits of information previously unknown. In one case, Jason proudly presents a “revelation” that confounds recent, revisionist thinking on the authorship of the Bixby letter. He excerpts a letter written by Robert in which he recalls asking John Hay whether he wrote it or not and Hay replying in the negative. No thought is given to the possibility that Hay did, in fact, write the letter but saw no reason to tarnish Lincoln’s reputation or hurt Robert’s feelings.

Whether Robert was a “giant” or not, he does not seem like a particularly interesting person, no doubt a consequence of his educational background and Victorian era standards of behavior. Given that the reviewer does not agree with the premise of the book and that the main character seems rather staid and strait-laced, it is hard to maintain interest in the work. We’re talking about a man who said that Benjamin Harrison was one of the “best presidents we’ve had.”

Catching all the mistakes in a book is an ideal that few, if any, editors ever achieve. Still, there were at least a dozen typo’s we spotted (after spending ten years on research, it might have been a good idea not to rush through the proof-reading process). Plus, there are some improper word usages. The work reads like a textbook and lacks a distinctive style or creative use of language that would engage the reader. Jason occasionally makes questionable assumptions, such as when he speculates that Robert Lincoln would have become President if Chester Alan Arthur had been nominated in 1884 and chosen Lincoln as his running mate, as many people advocated. The Republicans chose Blaine because they thought he was the better candidate. Despite numerous efforts to recruit Lincoln as a presidential candidate, he never got more than 4 votes in any of the balloting at national conventions.

In recounting the events of Robert Lincoln’s long career, Jason concludes that Lincoln acted properly in practically all instances. Robert only comes in for criticism on the question of his decision to require the Library of Congress to withhold access to his father’s papers until 21 years after his death. One would think that there had to be other instances of capricious behavior or shortcomings. One that comes to mind is the establishment of annuities and trust funds for his children and grandchildren. There may not be a direct relation, but the Lincoln offspring turned out to be a bunch of spoiled eccentrics and dissipates. Robert couldn’t stand the ne’er-do-well that eloped with his Jessie (Warren Beckwith), but his actions contributed to the creation of similar individuals and the Lincoln line came to an end.

In general, we were disappointed with this work; however, it might well interest the inveterate Lincolnphile.

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